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The UF Bat-Houses: A Health Risk or Just a Quirky Tourist Attraction?

In January, a 6-year-old boy from Eustice, Florida was bitten by a bat. Sadly, he died from rabies, after fighting for his life at Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando. With over 450,000 bats at the University of Florida’s bat-houses, it is most likely that at least 2,000 of them have rabies. Are we safe?

Paul Ramey, Assistant Director of the Florida Natural History Museum, believes we are safe.

“They don’t really pose a threat to humans,” Ramey said. “They actually have a very low incidence of rabies. Not any higher than any other animal.”

When compared to an animal like raccoons, where the likelihood of rabies is 1-in-3, bats comparably have a lower chance of rabies at 1-in-200. But the bat population in Gainesville, compared to any other animal is astronomically high. The bat-houses are the largest of its kind in the world, hosting between 450,000 and 500,000 bats of three different species. One species being the Brazilian free-tailed bat, which is the most common mammal in Florida.

“The colony keeps growing,” Ramey said.

The bat-house complex consists of one bat-house and two bat-barns. The original structure was a bat-house, constructed in 1991, but wasn’t inhabited by any bats until 1995. The structure collapsed due to too much weight in 2009, and killed over 100 bats in the process. The collapse prompted the construction of the bat-barn in 2010 after the reconstruction of the original bat-house. Last year, they also added another bat-barn to replace the bat-house, which they plan to tear down in the near future because of its rapid deterioration.

Now three bat-houses stand tall across from Lake Alice.

“Less than 1 percent of all bats have rabies, but if it’s lying on the ground, it’s a higher chance, at about 30 percent. Our bats aren’t any danger to people, pets or anything,” Ramey said.

Due to Gainesville’s dense bat population, Nick Adams from Critter Control of Gainesville disagrees. 

“Bats are the number one carrier of rabies,” Adams said. “It does not require a bite, even a scratch can transfer.”

Adams is currently working on eight bat-jobs in the Gainesville area, including the University of Florida Hilton Conference Center.

Though the thought of getting rabies is often a punchline in a joke, it can actually be a serious issue. Michael Scott was mocked relentlessly for creating “Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure” 5-K charity run, but Meredith Palmer is not alone in contracting rabies. While it may be a rare issue in America, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, rabies takes the lives of over 59,000 people every year, amounting to nearly one death every nine minutes.

The bats on campus only eat insects, (which is typical) but if touched, they may bite in self-defense. According to UF professor Mike Foley, a few years ago a UF student was bit by a rabid bat in Weimer Hall after poking the bat with a pencil believing it to be injured.

Rabies isn’t the only threat that bats present. Another health-threat posed by bats is the pulmonary disease Histoplasmosis that often grows with bat guano in enclosed or moist environments.

Complications from the disease can damage lungs, cause Meningitis, heart problems and cause damage to the adrenal glands. To contract the disease, you would have to inhale the spores from the guano. According to Ramey, the disease is not contagious between humans, and should not cause concern. Every third Thursday of the month, they give away the guano-filled soil surrounding the bat-houses. There’s a five-gallon-limit, but it’s B.Y.O.B. — bring your own bucket. The guano serves as a rich fertilizer for plant growth. By removing the soil, the chances of Histoplasmosis decrease heavily, essentially annulling concerns for the Histoplasmosis bacteria surrounding the area.

Amid rumors of rabies, Gainesville resident Carly Sinigoi isn’t concerned. The mother of two came with her family to watch the estimated 450,000 bats take flight, Wednesday night.

“I don’t think they’re interested in biting us, I think they’re more interested in eating mosquitoes,” Sinigoi said. “This is Earth, we all have a place here. We have a place here, they have a place here, they’re not harming us. It was an amazing experience, and we will definitely be back.”

So are the bats here safe?

The Verdict: Yes, as long as you don’t go around inhaling bat poop or poking the bats, then you should be fine.

Carolina is a third-year journalism major at the University of Florida. After graduation, she plans to reunite with her one true love— New York City. NYC bound, Carolina hopes to, one day, work for one of Hearst’s many magazine publications (*cough, cough* ELLE or Cosmo. She’s honestly not picky; she just wants to be employed) as a Social Media Director. In her rare free time, you can either find her in second-home and first love, Orlando, Florida, or running around town looking for something to write about. 
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